As we start the New Year, it’s important to look back on what was accomplished for inclusion of Jews with disabilities this past year. We planted the seeds for future progress. Most of the work focused on “setting the table” for inclusion: raising awareness, creating critical policies and standards, and developing and conducting training for professionals. Hopefully, 2014 will be the year of implementation. Meanwhile, here are the top plays and players of 2013.
1) Leadership: The field of Jewish camping. From the very top of the camping movement, where the staff and lay leaders of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) have put a focus on inclusion, all the way to the grassroots, high standard have been set. The Foundation for Jewish Camp has smart, holistic strategic planning; budgeting and training and they are committed to expanding inclusion at camps across North America.
Some camps, such as Ramapo and HASC, have been serving children with disabilities well for years. This year, Howard Blas and the Tikvah program at Ramah camps won well-deserved recognition from the Covenant Foundation for their exceptional work in inclusive camping. But there are new plans coming together to start doing a whole lot more in camps to include children of all abilities. Jewish camping is providing a living example of what more Jewish day schools and Federations should be doing.
2) “Walking The Walk:” NJY Camps. Last year, NJY Camps, which has nine camps under its umbrella, decided to merge its Round Lake Camp for children with disabilities with three of its other camps, in order to make the entire organization more inclusive. This is exceptionally exciting, as the children with disabilities were no longer in a completely segregated institution. It was also great for the children without disabilities who were exposed in a Jewish context to the actual diversity of Jewish people that God put on this earth. Len Robinson, CEO of the NJY Camps, and the entire staffs of NJY and Round Lake should get a medal for this exceptional and life changing work. Every segregated Jewish institution should look deeply at how this was done, as it took significant training and preparation, and it worked!
3) Raising Awareness: Jewish disability bloggers and their publications. This publication, The New Normal, and other Jewish publications provided key forums for idea sharing and information. Gary Roseblatt and Helen Chernikoff of The Jewish Week and Michelle Wolf and the Washington Jewish Week deserve gold medals for their outstanding work on and devotion to these issues.
4) Philanthropy: The Ruderman Family Foundation. They were able to get major organizations, including the Reform Movement, to make serious commitments to practicing inclusion and to raising awareness on disability issues. The Ruderman Foundation doesn’t just fund excellent work – they make the work itself visible. This in turn inspires others to do more good inclusion work. Foundations play a significant role on these issues and there are serious people working in this field. Thanks to networking enabled by the Jewish Funders Network’s Disabilities Peer Network, the Weinberg Foundation, the Butler Foundation and others are now sharing best practices and new ideas and supporting each other’s important initiatives. This is enabling Jewish funders to become force multipliers for positive social change. In Israel, the Ted Arison Foundation and Fishman Group are doing important work.
5) Leadership by Rabbis: the Reform Movement. The movement made inclusion one of the cornerstones of their 2013 Biennial and is offering more resources all the time. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Rabbi David Saperstein have added their voices from the top to those of Rabbi Lynne Landsberg and Rabbi Edythe Mencher, who have been on the front lines for years. Indeed, they played a vital role in creating a new partnership between key Jewish religious streams to share materials and ideas on inclusion. It will be exciting to see what comes from that collaboration.
6) Training: Steve Eidelman and Shelly Christensen are offering sophisticated training for Jewish professionals on inclusion. Not surprisingly, it was supported by the Ruderman and Weinberg Foundations. It was important because it enabled Jewish professionals working with disabilities to understand the full life cycle of people with disabilities. Where do Jewish camp, religious school and spirituality fit into the lives of people who are struggling with employment, transportation, healthcare and other issues? It’s critical for Jewish professionals understand all the ups and downs and richness of being a person with a disability, or having one in the family.
7) New Initiative: Shelley Cohen’s Jewish Inclusion Project. This effort offers vibrant and vital training for Rabinical students and others. Shelley is also a constant mentor and positive force for others in the field. Her thinking and actions are models for others to follow and she always makes herself available to help. Honorable “mensch”ion in this category goes to Vivian Bass of the Foundation for Group Homes, Linda Burger of Jewish Family Services in Houston, Arlene Remz of Gateways in Boston and Becca Hornstein in Arizona, who are each longtime visionaries in their field.
8) Name, Shame and Blame: Philanthropists who use the “power of the purse” to ensure that the organizations they fund do not support discrimination against Jews with disabilities. It is vital that philanthropists end the practice of funding organizations that systematically discriminate by denying access and services to people with disabilities.
Having sung such praise, it must still be said that people with disabilities, their families and those who work with them in the community are still left holding the bag while many top Jewish leaders stand idly by as discrimination persists. This is especially true at most (but thankfully not all) Jewish day schools and federations. According to Cornell, which has outstanding studies on the best practices on diversity inclusion in employment, nothing is more important to successful inclusion than the commitment of an organization’s top leadership.
Workers and advocates can make an important contribution, but real success can only come when inclusion is a part of the strategic plan, budget, training and recruitment strategies of Jewish organizations. When our federations and philanthropists tell the organizations that they fund that they will no longer tolerate the bigotry of denying access to services and programs to Jews with disabilities, change will be meaningful. 2013 was a year of laying the groundwork. May inclusion start to bloom from that ground in 2014.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the founder and president of laszlostrategies.com in Washington, D.C and the co-founder of RespectAbilityUSA. She is a proud parent who knows the challenges of raising a Jewish child with special needs.